Stretching for Dancers

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Traditionally, dancers are expected to be flexible and dancers’ stretching is a subject always under discussion. Sometimes it seems that dancers spend all available time for stretching. It is done before the class, during it, after it, and outside of the class while reading, eating etc. There is of course nothing wrong with stretching – stretching is good for you. Problems occur when stretching is done in an unfavourable manner.

 

Range of Motion and Flexibility

Range of Motion (ROM) refers to the degree of movement happening in a joint. This range is determined based on individual anatomical structures. Flexibility again refers to the soft tissues’ (muscles, tendons, ligaments) ability to lengthen within the available ROM. We should always listen and respect our bodies – we cannot change our bony structures. However, with stretching it is possible to affect flexibility.

 

Remember Individual Differences

Each body is different. If you are innately very flexible, remember you need also strength to support that flexibility. Maybe you can lift your leg straight all the way up to the side, but can you hold your leg there without the help of your hand? Muscular strength is needed not only for the aesthetics of dance but also to prevent injuries. To control a flexible body, you also need great amounts of strength.

If you are less flexible, by stretching it is possible to gain more flexibility. Often, less flexible body is often built for stability. Remember that each body has its strengths. By stretching patiently reasonable amounts, increasing flexibility is absolutely possible.

 

Why Prolonged Stretching Should not be Used?

There are several different stretching techniques. Different techniques should be used in different situations. Dancers tend to use what is called ‘prolonged stretching’. This means staying in a stretch for several minutes. This technique should not be used at all unless required due to an often severe pathology – and even then performed by a health care professional.

Prolonged stretching may elongate structures that are intended to provide stability and support the joints (ligaments, joint capsules). When ligament is stretched for too long past a certain point it cannot recover to its original length. Thus, when performing prolonged stretches, dancers predispose their joints for loss of stability and support. In the longer term this may cause even serious injuries.

Then how to stretch safely and still get results?

 

Dynamic Stretching During a Warm Up

The purpose of a warm up is to prepare the body for a physical performance – not to pursue flexibility. In a dance studio, there are often many dancers sitting legs open and call it a warm up. And why wouldn’t they – this often happens after taking cue from the older dancers that are looked up to who also call prolonged stretching a warm up.

Unfortunately, prolonged static stretches put you in a great risk to later get injured. If this isn’t a good enough reason to consider other types of ways to warm up, here is a list of things to which prolonged stretches before a dance class or performance have a negative impact on:

- Strength

- Endurance

- Balance

- Jump height

- Reaction time

- Movement time

- Ankle plantar-flexion strength (Plantar-flexion = 'pointing' the ankle)

 

Maybe things such as “a bad pirouette day” or “a bad jump day” don’t exist – maybe the problem could be a wrong kind of warming up before the class? Of course, there can be several different reasons for an occasional poor performance in a dance class but a good warm up (and specifically leaving out prolonged stretches) could eliminate many of the issues.

Dynamic stretching means controlled stretching that happens in constant movement (no maximal range of motion as the muscles are only being warmed up). This should be done after the body has been warmed up with a pulse raiser e.g. jogging or jumping, and you are lightly sweating. Hereby, the muscle is capable to receive the dynamic stretch safely.

 

Practical Tips

Perseverance and regularity are the keys to happiness in stretching.

 

When aiming to gaining flexibility:

- Stretch when your muscles are warm

- Stay in each stretch for 30 seconds

- Repeat each stretch 3-4 times

- For long-term gains, stretching should be done for several weeks, 3-4 times a week

- To maintain gained flexibility read the tips below

 

To maintain existing flexibility:

- Stretch when your muscles are warm

- Stay in each stretch for 30 seconds

- Repeat each stretch 3-4 times

- To maintain your flexibility stretching once a week is enough

 

How do you stretch? Is there anything that maybe should be changed in your habits? Give the tips a go and after a few weeks come and tell me were you able to gain more flexibility! 😊

- Sofia

 

 

References:

International Association for Dance Medicine and Science (IADMS) (2012) Stretching for Dancers. Available at: http://www.iadms.org/?353.

More/original references in the end of the IADMS paper!